ISIS mission: Divided, uncertain Canada edges gingerly into Iraq

The Liberals seem divided, the NDP steadfastly opposed and the Conservatives themselves reluctant combatants in taking a military role against ISIS. On the one point they do all agree - no boots on the ground - plenty of well-informed pessismists are ready to differ, CBC's Terry Milewski writes.

Doubts mark Canada's tentative advance toward combat

The government has announced plans to deploy six fighter jets and 600 troops in a six-month air combat mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Liberals seem divided on the plan, the NDP steadfastly opposed and the Conservatives themselves reluctant combatants. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

It was mischievous, but probably inevitable, that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird would rise in the House and cite an esteemed pillar of the Liberal Party in defence of the planned mission to Iraq.

Opposed by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, the mission seemed to make sense to his predecessor as interim leader — Bob Rae.

As Baird noted, Rae wrote in the Globe and Mail that, "This is not about 'peace' versus 'war.' This is about something different — the collective capacity of governments and international institutions to deal effectively with perpetrators of violence.”

However, Rae did not spell out exactly how to "deal effectively" with the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. And Baird did not mention that Rae wrote his article on Oct. 1 — before the government announced its plan and before Trudeau committed the Liberal Party to opposing it.

'Whack them, and whack them good'

But Rae's not the only Liberal who takes a hard line. 

In the words of another Liberal grandee — former senator and retired general Romeo Dallaire — air strikes won't do the job.

"There's no way you will destroy that enemy without boots on the ground," Dallaire told the CBC.
Former general Romeo Dallaire is among those who say airstrikes won't do the job against ISIS. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

And yet another senior Liberal — former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy — put it even more simply. The fighters of ISIS, he said, "have to be whacked, and whacked good." 

But Canada hardly seems ready to do much whacking. Never mind that the Liberals seem divided about it and the New Democrats steadfastly opposed. Start with the fact that the Conservative government itself is a reluctant combatant and determined to stay out of any combat, except from the air.

The Australians, the Dutch, the Belgians are already bombing — but the Harper government resembles Shakespeare's schoolboy, "creeping like snail unwillingly to school." We'll get there eventually, but we don't have to like it.

Just three more weeks of preparation and we'll be in action — assuming there are any targets left unbombed. After all, the prime minister said, “Being a free-rider means you are not taken seriously." Or, as Defence Minister Rob Nicholson put it, "we have to do this."

What we have to not do

Still, even if the parties disagree on what it is we "have to do," at least they're united on what we must not do: put boots on the ground. The most that any party will do is put boots 10,000 feet up in the air.

Is that a plausible plan? Is it more plausible because our allies take the same position? Maybe not.

When it was Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair's turn to speak against the government's motion Monday, he, like Baird, quoted a distinguished source who seemed — just seemed — to support his point of view. Mulcair's pick was Robert Fowler, the senior diplomat, now retired, who was kidnapped by al-Qaeda forces in Africa in 2008. Fowler was lucky to get out with his head still attached and writes like a man who's seen the enemy up close.

As Mulcair noted, Fowler's own op-ed about the need to confront ISIS declared that the bombing mission "will inevitably creep ... we will kill and maim many, many more innocent civilians than the caliphate could behead in its wildest dreams."

Doing the nasty 

But that's not all Fowler said. What Mulcair did not mention was that Fowler's complaint was not that military action was futile, but that the no-boots campaign proposed was wholly insufficient. In fact, Fowler's article was a searing denunciation of Western reluctance to "do the nasty."

"Suddenly," Fowler wrote Oct. 3, "full of righteous indignation and disgust, we've thrown together another abstract, not very cohesive, not very committed coalition."
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird used former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae's own words against his party in the House of Commons. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The failure to put boots on the ground, Fowler said, means that the allies "will fail in our arm's-length attempts to safely confront and effectively limit the predations of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State because we do not have the will — the necessary stuff — to prevail ... We seem incapable of making the case, even to ourselves, that if these guys really represent a threat to our way of life, then it behooves us to do the nasty necessary to eradicate that threat."


By Fowler's account, and by Dallaire's, and by retired general Lewis Mackenzie's, and by those of many other well-informed pessimists, the debate over six Canadian warplanes is almost beside the point. Not politically — because being a free-rider really does have consequences — but militarily. No amount of planes, they say, will win this kind of war.

If they're right, we're on a slow, shuffling, reluctant march to a long, grinding war. If they're wrong ... well, let's hope they're wrong.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.